Friday, October 14, 2016

107. Grave of the Vampire and 108. Mutant

Jump to Mutant (1984)

107. Grave of the Vampire (1972)
Director: John Hayes
Writers: David Chase, treatment by John Hayes
From: Pure Terror
Watch: archive.org

A child born from the rape of a woman by a vampire grows up to hunt his evil father down.

The movie opens with a couple going to a graveyard to make out, which is always a good idea and promises a quality outcome. As the guy proposes to the girl, the vampire Croft rises from his grave. Croft kills the guy, rapes the girl, and runs off when the gravedigger comes by.

There’s some material that feels like it’s going to be important—the detective investigating the murder and rape is closing in on Croft, the woman is told to abort the baby because it’s not alive and is actually feeding off her, the baby being born as an early version of Blade--but ultimately comes to nothing. The detective is killed by Croft at the graveside, the woman insists the baby is her lover’s child and so refuses to abort him, and the rearing of a half-human/half-vampire child isn’t explored.

This constitutes the first third/half of the movie, and there’s a lot the movie does well. First is the issue of the rape. It’s an inciting incident so, in that sense, is essential to the story, but the movie never makes it an angle for exploitation or entertainment. The assault happens off-screen so you’re not watching someone’s assault displayed for fun. Plus the cops investigating the case take her seriously, never question her story, and never halfway blame her for her own assault. She’s the victim and they’re focused on the person who committed the crime. I know it sounds PC to highlight it, but this manages to be a movie about an assault that does it right, and it was done in 1972. It’s 44 years later—figure it out, filmmakers!

The detective is interesting as well. Since he dies relatively quickly, he doesn’t get defined a lot, but he’s sketched out pretty well for the time he’s on-screen and the initial impression is that he’s going to be a mentor or Dr. Loomis figure for the kid: “He was there the night of the assault, figured out it was a vampire, but no one believed him. Now, twenty years later, the child of that assault is coming to the detective to hunt down his vampire father and stamp out the evil for good!” That movie sounds awesome. Unfortunately, this one has the detective killed by Croft at Croft’s graveside and that’s the end of that plotline.

Also the end of the production values. This is the moment when the movie shifts to the woman having the baby and, during the first few difficult weeks, learning that the baby will only drink blood. This starts to look like an Andy Milligan movie, that anachronistic moldering Gothic made in a contemporary space aesthetic. I like that look. There is a pleasure, sometimes, to seeing the seams because you get the sense that you could do this too. And the overall aesthetic of this first part works pretty well. There’s a nice tone, atmosphere, and then it just falls away for the rest of the movie.

Jump ahead, the child, James, is an adult, has learned the truth about his father, and has been tracking him around the world, seeking revenge. How this revenge has manifested or been funded is never explained. We only get introduced to it all through voice-over, and are told that James has finally found him.

Croft is teaching a night class (of course) about myths and fears under the name Professor Lockwood. James has signed up as a student and antagonized Lockwood briefly by mentioning Croft. After class, Lockwood flirts with Anne, one of his students who reminds him of his dead wife.

Anne and her roommate Anita live in the same building as James. James comes down to find a party being through, Anita takes him aside to ask about Croft, and then Anne leaves with James because she didn’t anticipate coming home to a party. She and James hook up which Lockwood sees in a vision. He visits Anne and Anita’s apartment, but only finds Anita. She says she knows he’s Croft and asks him to turn her. He kills her instead. Anne finds the body and is expectedly disturbed.

Not that it seems to matter much in the movie because we cut to Anne talking to brand new characters about the séance that Lockwood has invited them all to because apparently that’s happening now. Anne, James, and the sundry deadmeats join Lockwood for the séance. Lockwood tries to get his late wife to possess Anne, but Anita possesses her instead and reveals him as the vampire—a revelation that carries no weight because James is the only one who cares and he already knows.

You fail. You fail at movie-making.
The spirit leaves, James takes Anne upstairs to recover on one of the beds, and Lockwood kills the deadmeats. James finally confronts Lockwood, reveals that James is Lockwood’s son, and they fight. James kills Lockwood, but in the final moments, the vampiric curse seems to take him over and the movie ends with him as a vampire. And a goofy title card.

What starts as a low-budget, atmospheric piece devolves into an episodic muddle. The three parts—conception, classroom, climax—don’t feel linked, like the writer and director had the three big events they wanted in the movie, but didn’t know how to make the energy flow. I was ultimately disappointed by this because I enjoyed the beginning so much. There was a lot of promise that just petered out. The movie, frankly, felt like a mini-series that got cut down to a 90-minute feature: the key moments of each episode were present, but the material linking them got cut for time.

On the upside, the film is in the public domain and there’s a nice MPEG2 on Archive.org. Due to the rape at the beginning, it’s a little difficult to riff this movie, but it’s good enough to pass the time on a Saturday afternoon.


108. Mutant aka Night Shadows (1984)
Directors: John “Bud” Cardos, Mark Rosman
Writers: Michael Jones, John C. Kruize, and Peter Z. Orton from a story by Michael Jones and John C. Kruize
From: Pure Terror

Two brothers get stranded in a small Southern town while on a road trip. Strange figures start stalking the streets at night and, when one brother disappears, the other has to start digging to find out the truth.

We open with a man walking through the yard of a darkened house. He finds curious ooze on the ground and puts it in a specimen jar. He goes into a cellar through the outer door and gets attacked by something hands that burn, and he never appears in the movie again.

We cut to Josh and Mike driving down a country highway. Josh is telling Mike to lighten up and, to demonstrate his point, closes his eyes and lets go of the wheel allowing the car to go wherever it may on the road. Mike tells him to quit and Josh almost has a head-on collision with a truck. The truck turns around and runs Josh and Mike off the road into a gulley, leaving them stranded.

It’s in this introduction to our heroes, and, yes, Josh and Mike are the heroes, that you find the problem with the movie. Josh is being stupid and almost gest Mike killed. Mike just takes it—I mean, he doesn’t even try to grab the wheel to keep the car going straight. He just whines at Josh to quit it. And the truck that runs them off the road is full of giggling rednecks laughing at them for being city boys, but Josh almost ran right into their truck. He’s the problem, not them. The movie forgets where our sympathies lay.

So the brothers walk to town, arrive at night, and Mike finds a body that’s been attacked by someone with powers similar to whatever killed the man at the beginning. Mike wants to call the police, but when they go into the bar to ask for help, they run into the rednecks again and a fight breaks out. Josh actually makes things a bit worse. The sheriff is there, though, and breaks it up, telling Josh and Mike to leave by morning. Mike tells him they found a body, but when they investigate, the corpse is gone and a bum wearing almost identical clothes is found instead.

The sheriff drops them at a boarding house where Josh and Mike are given separate rooms and this is the part where you’d expect something to happen to Josh because he’s the jerk, the comic relief, and Mike is the character who’s starting to suspect something about this town and investigate. So of course a monster reaches out from under the bed and takes Mike. We’re left for the rest of the movie with the cinematic equivalent of the asshole on the other end of the bar that you’re so glad you don’t have to deal with.

Things don’t develop too dramatically from there. Mike asks the cute barmaid for help getting to a gas station since the town is eerily deserted, and she agrees after she swings by the school since she’s also a teacher. School’s been canceled as well and there’s a crying child there because he’s afraid of how weird his parents are acting at home. Teacher sends him home anyway—thanks lady!—and Mike finds a corpse in the school basement. He gets into another fight with the head redneck and then hides in the teacher’s car.

The sheriff and local doctor are confused about the state of the body so the doctor does her own autopsy. She starts describing the effects of the disease that seems to have killed the victim while her assistant is going through them and ultimately turns into a monster.

An hour in, we finally see one of the monsters. And they look. . .

Okay. Actually, they’re not terrible at all, but it’s mostly pancake makeup spread all over their skin. They look a bit like the dead souls in Carnival of Souls so it’s not that bad, it’s just not dramatic.

Anyway, there are a few red herrings—Josh is suspected of involvement with the killings, he’s still trying to find his brother, and there are nods to the sheriff and doctor having had a relationship. Eventually Josh tracks the contamination back to the local chemical plant which is causing the zombie outbreak, the town is completely overrun by zombies that night, and Josh and the teacher are saved at the last minute from the monsters by the sheriff and the state police.

The movie’s not terrible, I just didn’t care. The production values are okay and it looks nice enough, but the plot’s lacking and the characters never drew me in. Making the jerky brother the protagonist was a real misstep because I spent the movie going, “If you stopped being a prick for five minutes, ya might get somewhere.” Frankly, this feels like something Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have seriously considered doing for an episode. Rifftrax, it turns out, did.

I grabbed the Rifftrax a while ago, which was lucky because, as of this writing, it’s no longer available. According to one of the comments on the page, this has been the case since at least early September. The may have been mistakenly thought to be public domain and someone has stepped forward to make their claim or the Rifftrax contract to distribute the film expired. So it may come back. Definitely a strange occurrence.

So, yeah, it’s okay. You can make jokes around it and it’s not overly-boring, it’s just never that compelling or over-the-top either. It is more than perfunctory, which is to its credit, but it’s also probably part of that subset of 80’s horror movies where the VHS cover art was far more dramatic than anything in the film itself.

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